Text Sarah Ahmed
We have corresponded by email. I’ve tasted his wines. I’d even met his father and wife several times. And finally I met with Mateus Nicolau de Almeida at Simplesmente Vinho in Oporto last month.
The following week I was back, visiting the family-owned Douro Superior vineyard from which he part sources grapes for his Muxagat label and from which he, his father and brother (João Nicolau de Almeida senior and junior) jointly make Quinta de Monte Xisto which is marketed by his sister Mafalda Nicolau de Almeida. It would seem that this winemaking family get on very well because the blend is very harmonious!!
Photo by Sarah Ahmed / All Rights Reserved
João Nicolau de Almeida senior has earned his place in the Douro history books as a result of his pioneering work at Ramos Pinto’s Quinta de Ervamoira. Marking the birth place of a new viticultural era in the Douro, Ervamoira was the first Douro quinta to be block planted with single varietal parcels focused on the so-called “top cinco,” which Nicolau de Almeida’s pilot study helped to identify (they are Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinto Cão and Tinta Barroca). It was also the first quinta to be vertically planted (a break from the tradition of contoured, horizontal terraces).
Following firmly in both the footsteps of his father and his grandfather (Barca Velha creator Fernando Nicolau de Almeida), Mateus is also breaking new ground. Describing himself as a “Douro Vigneron,” the city life in Oporto is not for him. He lives full-time in the Douro Superior from where he can focus on tending his vines as well as making the wine. Even the front garden of the home he shares with his wife (Ramos Pinto winemaker Teresa Ameztoy) is a vineyard! He observes, “there is no culture of vignerons in the Douro – it’s very recent. I can count on the fingers of one hand the winemakers who live in the valley and not in the big towns. Now a younger generation are starting to live here.”
Mateus Nicolau de Almeida set down roots in the Douro Superior in 2003, which is when he started the Muxagat project.
Adopting his grandfather’s methodology for Barca Velha (which his father has also used to great effect for Ramos Pinto’s Duas Quintas range) he sources grapes from old field blend vineyards from higher altitudes such as Muxagata and Meda (at between 500-700m) as well as Quinta do Monte Xisto which, rising to around 300m, is lower and warmer.
Photo by Sarah Ahmed / All Rights Reserved
Where Quinta do Monte Xisto had not previously been cultivated, Nicolau de Almeida and his siblings successfully made the case for cultivating the vineyard organically. It was planted between 2005 and 2006 and is now certified organic. He explains, “the land was virgin, so we didn’t want to add chemical products.” Though his father was initially doubtful about a non-interventionist approach (“his background is mechanisation”), he was prepared to be open-minded and has been very happy with the results. Nicolau de Almeida’s pride and joy in the family project brims over in the shape of an ear-splitting grin when I share with him his father’s comment that he has learned a lot working with his sons. He (Mateus) adds “we are different generations, we have different ideas and perspectives, but we always arrive at the same conclusion [great grapes and great wine] even if it is in a different way.”
So why has this non-interventionist approach proved so successful? Nicolau de Almeida reckons, among other things, “vines are like children – they must suffer, otherwise they will be spoiled.” He says it would have been all too easy to reach for the herbicide when grass grew between the vines, but the competition has been good for them. He also emphasises the importance of living in the region “because it takes a long time to understand a vineyard. You do something in one year and you only see the results after five years…you need to talk with nature and be here every day to feel nature and connect with nature.” It’s why, although he has adopted some biodynamic practices (for example cultivating the vineyard in harmony with planetary rhythms and applying preparation 500/composted cow manure), he has not hired a biodynamic consultant and is not racing towards biodynamic certification.
He is, however, convinced of the importance of biodiversity “because we can reach a moment with biodiversity when we don’t need to treat the vineyard; already we treat the vineyard less and less.” Insofar as treatments or tisanes are applied, they include locally-sourced natural ingredients, for example eucalyptus (an antiseptic) and cacti “which acts like aloe vera for the skin,” protecting the grapes from the sun. Having tested grapes which have been grown with and without the cacti tisane he has observed that using it results in wines which are fresher (with a lower pH) and lighter (with a lower alcohol).
More generally he has noticed that, when he receives grapes into the winery from those vineyards which he personally has tended, it is as if he knows them already – “I know what is going to happen.” It is almost as if the grapes themselves are part of the family. In fact come to think of it I’d say the resulting wines are both charming and provocative, much like the Nicola de Almeida family. Here are my notes on the wines:
Muxagat MUX Branco 2012 (Douro)
This combination of 80% Rabigato with other (unspecified old field blend) varieties is very mineral and lip-smackingly fresh with ripe lemons, a tight citric backbone and a hint of smoky hazelnut to its long, well-focused finish. The gravity-pressed wine is part aged in subterranean concrete vats and part aged in 600l oak barrels. Very good – love its vim and vigour.
Muxagat Os Xistos Altos Rabigato 2011 (Douro)
This 100% Rabigato from a vineyard at 500m spent two years ageing in a combination of 2000l Austrian foudres and concrete egg-shaped fermenters. It is a stonier, more textural wine with a salty edge to its long, limpid finish. Less direct, more subtle than the MUX it gives much less away. But with more structure it has time to unravel its secrets. And I reckon it will be worth the wait. Very good; decant now or give it another 6 months to a year before broaching.
Muxagat MUX Rosé 2012 (Douro)
This is a really interesting rosé – I’m tempted to say intellectual, but I think that might be pushing it too far! Anyway, what I mean is that it bears little resemblance to the sweetish cheap and cheerful pink wines to be found in every corner shop and supermarket. All of which stands to reason given that MUX is sourced from a very high vineyard at 700m, moreover is influenced by the kind of dry, savoury rosés which Nicolau de Almeida’s southern French friends like to drink on a summer’s day (think Provence, Bandol, Tavel). A blend of Tinto Cão and Tinta Barroca which is fermented and aged partly in tank, partly in (old) barrel, this pinkish beige wine is creamy but dry and savoury with good acidity, lifted floral and dried spice notes and a hint of chocolate to its lingering finish. Much nicer than that sounds!
Muxagat Tinta Barroca 2012 (Douro)
For Nicolau de Almeida the key to this surprisingly lively Tinta Barroca (it is prone to high sugar/alcohol) is low yields and elevation. Like the rosé it comes from a vineyard at 700m. Grapes are de-stemmed and crushed then fermented in subterranean (closed) concrete vats where the wine is aged for 8 months in order to maximise aroma and fruit expression. Job well done because, though a little reduced on the nose, this is a vibrant, gently perfumed vin de soif with floral notes, chocolate and a spicy cinnamon edge to its round damson and red berry fruit. Smooth but grainy tannins, salt lick minerality and good freshness make for an interesting but easy going wine. Very well done. 13%
Muxagat MUX Tinto 2011 (Douro)
This is very 2011 in its concentration with structure. It has a really lovely intensity of dark but juicy berry, cherry and currant fruit. Layers of cinnamon, wild herbs, chocolate and liquorice bring lift, depth and resonance to the finish. Ripe but present tannins and firm acidity make for a long, very youthful finish. Excellent. Character and class.
Muxagat Cisne 2010 (Douro)
Cisne means swan in Portuguese. Nicolau de Almeida chose the name for this wine because, like the ugly duckling from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, its principal grape variety (Tinto Cão) only reveals its beauty with age. In fact a week earlier I’d tasted this wine alongside a 1981 Tinto Cão from Ramos Pinto (a trial wine). The older wine completely took me aback with its powerful intensity and unbelievably deep (squid ink) youthful colour. Cisne is co-fermented with (7%) Rabigato and aged for three years in old oak barrels in an effort to tame its wildest excesses. Still, it’s a very intense wine with deep-seated inky/floral, bitter chocolate and spice notes to its tight, well-defined black currant and earthier raspberry fruit, a touch of greenness too. Ripe but firm tannins and acidity forecast a long life ahead. As they say in Portugal, it is not a “consensual” wine. It will certainly benefit from time in bottle. But there is no denying it has character in spades. Singular and, like an intense person, inwardly-focused and initially reserved, but then the ideas come in waves…and they’re good ones! 14%
João Nicolau de Almeida & Filhos Quinta do Monte Xisto 2011 (Douro)
At 300m, one might have expected Quinta do Monte Xisto to be much broader, with more heft than the Muxagat wines which are part sourced from higher vineyards. However, with both (cooler) north and (warmer) south facing slopes and water-retentive solid schist subsoil Quinta do Monte Xisto is surprisingly fine, lifted even. It helps that, while the fruit from the lower slopes is foot-trodden in lagars, higher altitude fruit is fermented in tank to preserve aroma and fruit. Also that it is aged (for 18 months) in mostly seasoned large (old) barrels of French and 4000l Austrian oak. It is very deep in colour and very perfumed on the nose with rose petal verging on turkish delight exotic lift, a quality which follows through in the mouth. And, with its very pure, very supple crushed raspberry and black berry fruit and sheer, fine tannins, the palate has a surprising levity about it. But most noteworthy of all is its pronounced minerality. Not for nothing is the quinta named after its schist (xisto) soils. Long and persistent with lovely saturation and palate penetration, its finely honed, mineral-sluiced finish has delicious fluidity – so very far removed from “the bigger the better” super-extracted styles of the past. An outstanding debut from this young vineyard.